Profiles / Voices

Ntiedo Etuk

CEO of DimensionU – Educational Videogame Software Producer

I started and run a company call DimensionU that creates educational video games.

We make education as interesting and as viral as possible in the social media and video game space for children. I grew up in Nigeria playing the old educational video games such as “Oregon Trail,” “Math Blaster” and “Where in the World is Carmen Santiago?” My parents are from the Bahamas and Nigeria. I actually started programming when I was around 11 or 12 years old. I always wanted to start and run my own company so when I came to the United States I studied computer engineering at Cornell University. When I graduated I decided that I wanted to teach at Big Brothers, Big Sisters of America ( I had a little brother named Darren. Darren’s mom wanted me to teach him algebra. He needed help. If I asked him what 10 x 4 was, it might take him 10 seconds to get the wrong answer. So I sat there, realizing the severity of my challenge. How do I teach him something as sophisticated as algebra when clearly he doesn’t have the basic skills? This was not a learning problem. He was a very bright young man. The problem was in the way I presented the curriculum. The content that I thought was important to him was not of interest to him. Ironically, figuring out how to manipulate his VCR, figuring out any of the technological things that are parents found incredibly difficult to do…he had no problems at all.


Revealing Stats

I tried to teach him math in the way that I’ve been thought, which was to hit it hard and consistently until you get it. We went through a couple of months of that and, at which point I jokingly like to refer as the time he fired me. Man, was it traumatic for me. Darren told his mom he wanted to stop the tutoring. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to learn, he did. The problem, he told me, was that it wasn’t any fun. And I realized that this was an analogy for our entire education system. We have a whole generation of children who are use to things like Instant Messaging, email, video games and social networking. All these things resulted in them processing information differently than the rest of us. But when we got into the classroom, those differences were not acknowledged and the lessons were not modified accordingly. We’re asking children to slow down and do things that they just don’t normally do. That realization became the impetus and the inspiration for a whole new way of viewing and approaching education. I wanted to integrate the engaging element into education. I returned to business school at Columbia University, and wrote a business plan around an educational/entertainment company. It was actually first in the publishing space. When I graduated, I realized that I needed to change the software video game space and that’s how DimensionU was born.

DimensionU is the company and Dimension M is the name of the product suite. There are a number of games. We produce six games, two single player and four multiplayer games. The four multiplayer games are wrapped under a suite of products called the Dimension M for Math. And the pricing model we’ve sold to schools and school districts right now is on a per student/per year basis (annual license). On average it can range anywhere from $5 – $20 per student per year. We’re about to allow the parents to buy it themselves for the home. We deliberately started with the schools to compile the data in order to show why teachers would want this and make the case that it actually helps with the children’s scores etc. The children says that it looks and feels like “Halo.” They’re 3-Dimensional. You can move around the environment and you actually have to solve math problems in order to get through. The key element is that they are multi-user, multi-player. So if this were a classroom, you would have all of the students on one side collaborating with one another and they can play and compete against the other side of the classroom. And you can replicate that with classroom against classroom, school against school around the district, region, country and the world. You can have someone playing in Korea against someone in NYC. This is where we’re going. It’s focused around math-algebra, 3rd grade through 12th right now. Although we are not there yet, we’re looking to branch out into other subjects science, social studies, and English learning.

As CEO, I have a broad set of responsibilities. I am the face of the company. I speak to investors. I speak with executives about doing large business deals. I work in conjunction with my team to set the broad strategic direction and goals. As the company and the organization grows, I’ve found that I had to let go of the day-to-day details. That is a transition that many entrepreneurs don’t easily make. The great thing is that we have a fantastic team. So they very much focused on what we have to do for tomorrow and the next six months. I focus on that period from six months to three years. I figure out how we will position ourselves against competitors and other market challenges. We are constantly learning from our customers as well as the investors. We take this feedback into account and apply it on a day-to-day basis.

I was a pretty strong student in math. I had good instincts in mathematics. I am not an exceptionally detailed person. In fact, let me put another way. I can be detailed but it is extremely difficult for me to be there for a long period of time. So math, instinctively, made a lot of sense. It was always a challenge to do really well. I was the type of student who in one semester would get an A+ and then next semester would get a B. It really depended on my level of interest. The more I was interested in something, the better I did. In high school and college, I learned a life lesson that it was important to choose something that I liked. I didn’t want to wake up on a daily basis and do something I hated. Life is too short. So I would say that I was a good math student. I did well in all of my standardized tests and classes, but when I compare that to people who have a genuine gift in math…they can have it.

I knew the math, everything from basic arithmetic all the way up to calculus, because that was part of the engineering program. Math could sometimes be a struggle. In my view, if something were a struggle, the only way to get through it was to keep hitting at it. Nothing in life is fun all the time. There is a time and place to take something seriously, even if you have to struggle at it. It is only when you actually try and apply a concept yourself that you come to understand it by making it your own and internalizing it.

There are different ways to do that. One is that you can say ‘here is the concept’ go to it and just assume the other person is just going to get it. The other way to do it is to actually make it applicable to their lives. Give them an example and show them how it’s interesting and how it applies. I tried to bring it alive and I didn’t do it very well. Basically, I was almost sounded like the textbook that we were using. I would say ‘Here is the concept and now I want you to practice these questions.’ That’s not what needs to be done. Where is the relevancy? Oh, video games are relevant to you? Then let me explain how this can work in the context of a video game. It’s interesting to you if you like baseball. Let me explain statistics in terms of baseball. That actually gets the children’s attention. I say if you want to get a child to read, you can teach them the dry way of reading or you can give them a comic book. And I guarantee you that they will look at the pictures and wonder what is happening. They will actually try to figure out those words and become inspired. They will want to learn how to do it on their own. I was not doing that and it was a lesson I needed to learn.

Educators typically ask whether these games should be primarily used for remediation and review. Should they be used for students who are struggling, for gifted or the average student? And my answer is that this is less about where the student sits with an achievement perspective and more about where they sit from a learning style perspective. So they have an option right now. The option is learn math with a workbook or textbook or with an educational video game. Those are their options. I’ll leave it to you to decide which they selected. Most of the time students choose educational video games because it is what they are used to doing.

When we started the company, we were very focused on where the pain points were in the United States. We knew that there was going to be increasing globalization, and we also knew that technology is where societies tend to look to maintain their competitive advantage. Science and mathematics are becoming more and more critical. Mathematics was a good place to start because it’s easy to figure out whether or not you have done something right or wrong. We could easily assess how a student did in a video game versus an interpretation of an English passage. That is slightly subjective and I’ve yet to completely figure out how computers can assess proficiency at writing essays. The other aspect is that algebra is really the gatekeeper to college. We know this. It’s something that’s been studied a number of times and has been reported on. But the key to algebra is actually pre-algebra. Children do just fine up until the point of being introduced to pre-algebra concepts, then they fall off a cliff. The United States has a great elementary and college system. That in-between is like a box that just sucks students in and forgets about them. That’s why 30 percent of students drop-out. And we don’t know what’s happening. With algebra as one of the key components and the key point of frustration, we decided to attack the pain point. And the interesting thing was that very few other people were. Most were focused on early childhood literacy or math development. They were not focused on this broad in-between stage when students start having a mind of their own. Parents can tell them what to do when they’re younger but at this stage they’re not willing to listen to parents. But we were not afraid of that challenge.

One of the key things that I felt was missing from the educational experience is emotion. Getting test scores back is an emotional experience. Good scores make you happy; bad ones make you sad. Simple as that. But there is no incentive.

We know, first of all, that boys and girls approach video games differently and for different reasons. Girls like video games for social reasons. They like the story and get very involved with that aspect of the game. Boys like the action. Both like it from a strategic level. Girls initially are attracted to things more from a cerebral than boys. But actually integrate elements of both into our educational video games. The only way that you actually win is by doing the math. And so you may like the action part but that doesn’t help you win. You may like the storyline but that doesn’t help you win. You have to learn in order to get ahead. And we found that to be very successful formula for us.

So what we find is that girls help each other more, and guys prefer to do it alone. It’s similar to the VCR syndrome where guys will try to fix it and will only read the instructions after they break it. What has been interesting is when you put the boys and girls into the classroom together especially with the games, a certain action element comes into play. The boys run around and do the action and the girls sit there and do the math and they win. The boys can’t figure out why the girls win. But all of a sudden they understand it, stop playing around and do the math. When that happens, it raises the general level of what I call the achievement in the games across the board, which is more the strategic and critical thinking of the game.

You have to leverage their imagination. I read a lot of fantasy and science fiction books. Things like art, music and reading are not supported in our education system right now. But the arts allow students to leverage their imagination, which is critical for working in science and technology.

Clearly mathematics is a big deal. It uses a different side of the brain. Math is the fundamental language of the universe. A lot of things can be defined in mathematical terms like a mathematical expression or equation. If you can understand math, then you can understand science and technology pretty well. I believe subjects like physics and chemistry are important because they teach a pattern of thinking. The world is a very logical place. It may seem chaotic but everything has its place. There is actually a logical flow that comes from understanding the connectivity between electrons, protons and neutrons. One doesn’t have to master the logic that comes out of math and science nor the creativity and imagination that comes from the humanities, but if one has a general understanding of both, then you’re very well set for a future in science and technology.